Richard Linklater from ‘Slacker’ to ‘Waking Life’: Underdog Turned Philosopher

If there is such a thing as fate, it reminds us of the fragility of our bodies and how our best laid plans can turn into our biggest limitations. Often these reminders can turn into motivators for doing something we never knew possible. Sometimes, extraordinary things can happen after a tumble to the ground.

Take, for example, cinematic underdog Richard Linklater. As a filmmaker who developed a knack for expressing the brighter side of the human condition, he probably knew the odds were not in his favor when he decided to make movies. Instead of diving into the Hollywood shark tank, he started as a big fish in a small pond (in a desert). But if he hadn’t had the experience of growing up in a small town, he would never have found a reason to tell the stories of average people. To this day, he remains where he planted his roots, still dedicated to the stories of people like you and me.

Richard Linklater grew up in Houston with his mother (an educator at Sam Houston State University) and his stepfather (a prison guard at a local penitentiary). In high school, he moved to the suburbs with his dad to play baseball for a reputable team. Baseball seemed like the obvious route to pursue professionally, since he was a short adolescent but built like a brick house, and he felt validated when on the field.

Linklater hit .400 his senior year, earning a scholarship to Sam Houston State. After two seasons, his baseball career came to a sudden end, when he discovered he had an arrhythmic heart condition. Facing the end of his long sought after dream, he noted, “I love baseball, I really do. I assure you, hitting a baseball is maybe the best thing about life.”

So how does one cope with having to reexamine one’s life? One does something unprecedented.

College didn’t mean much to him without passion, which he reserved mostly for baseball. So he left Texas to work on an offshore oil rig. It was the drudgery of hard labor, free time, and love of leisure that led him into movie theaters. Sometimes, he’d watch four films a day, and then he’d go home to watch a few more.

This wasn’t his typical behavior before joining the work force. Slowly, cinema started to work on him, until he had no choice but to confront the reasons for his obsessive behavior. Even though he was a college drop out, he was in the midst of a metamorphosis: “Stay in school was the advice from everyone. I learned early on: Listen to all the advice, get a consensus, and then kind of do the opposite.”

He voraciously inundated himself with his new-found passion and eventually saved up enough money to buy a Super-8 camera, a projector, and some editing equipment. He then moved to Austin, where he later established the Austin Film Society. Austin is where he started putting his life into perspective and utilizing the help of fellow cinephiles. In his early thirties, Linklater started producing, directing, and writing features. He’s a living example of what can happen if you simply pursue what you want.

He started with what he knew, filming off-chance encounters in Austin. The first scene in his first feature, Slacker (1991), is shot in a taxi, with Linklater himself musing about the limitless possibilities of simple choices and how they redirect the course of life. It feels like meeting the man himself. The driver remains expressionless as Linklater’s intensity over the subject builds. It seems like he’s rambling on to himself, but he’s setting up the conditions for Slacker’s premise. In a stream of shots following one character to the next, coincidental happenstance chronicles a day in the life of the city’s emphatic dwellers.

The minimalist approach to the characters, setting, and plot works in his favor. It’s a film shot with a low budget and actors who worked for free. With Slacker, Linklater started to redefine what it meant to be a filmmaker. Somebody with absolutely no reputation or financial backing could make a modest movie if it related to the experiences of a generation. As his first feature to receive critical acclaim, he used Slacker to plant the seed for future opportunities.

With Dazed and Confused (1993), his next feature about a generation that precedes that of Slacker, Linklater builds on the sentiments of disenchanted youth, utilizing the music of Foghat, ZZ Top, and Alice Cooper to engage viewers. There’s a logical progression from Slacker to Dazed. The film starts at the final day of school in the summer of 1976, in Huntsville, Texas. He expertly portrays a broad scope of the high school experience, from incoming freshmen who desperately try to avert the seniors’ hazing rituals, to social outcasts and burnouts.

Its success is due in large part to Linklater’s hands on approach to directing. He not only directs from behind the camera, but he rehearses for weeks before actually filming. When comparing the style and flow from Slacker to Dazed, it’s evident that he wants to make well-thought-out movies. To do this, he works tirelessly with his actors, much like good professors do with their students. He not only wants the actors to know their characters intimately, but he wants to facilitate the entire process of making a film. Rehearsal is where the soul of collaboration meets the body of intention. Movie making is about the exchange of ideas, actors learning from each other, and figuring out where everyone fits and why. Not a single character has a mundane role in Dazed and Confused. In large part, it’s Linklater’s growing awareness that makes Dazed and Confused one of the best films of his career. That was the turning point in his career, where passion met obsession.

He quickly developed a niche and started to perfect it. The inspiration for his next film came directly from his experience, much like Slacker and Dazed. This time, he co-wrote the screenplay with Kim Krizan, whom he had met in Philadelphia and formed an immediate bond. They cast Ethan Hawk and Julie Delpy to recreate their chance encounter, aiming to explore “the relationship side of life and discover two people who had complete anonymity and try to find out who they really were.”

In Before Sunrise (1995), Celine (Delpy) and Jesse (Hawk) meet on a train to Vienna, awkwardly chat about where they’re from and where they’re headed, and ultimately decide to spend the day together. Linklater proposes that strangers are more apt to speak openly and honestly about their personal lives, thoughts, aspirations, desires, and embarrassing anecdotes. The film is shot in real-time, allowing the viewer to immediately relate to the characters’ experiences.

Before Sunrise had much more emphasis on collaboration and developing true to life charters than any of Linklater’s previous films. When Celine and Jesse meet nine years later in Before Sunset (2004), their lives intersect as before, by chance. Themes such as fate and destiny come up frequently in his films. He subtly contemplates the metaphysical aspect of life through these characters.

However, the film that explores the philosophic undertones guiding his career all come into play in Waking Life (2001). The title is a reference to George Santayana’s maxim “Sanity is a madness put to good uses; waking life is a dream controlled.” Although the character we follow in the film (Wiley Wiggins) has a hard time distinguishing between his waking life and dream state, he’s guided by instinct to people who try to uncover what he’s experiencing. Each character reveals a philosophic tid-bit pertaining to the nature of existence, as it pertains to dreams.

To enhance Waking Life’s subject matter, the film is animated by means of rotoscoping. Each frame is drawn over and layered with independently moving shapes and colors, adding a stimulating, stylized depiction of the madness of dreamscapes. Philosophic questions arise throughout the film as Wiggins travels through this undetermined state. Is there such thing as free will? Is everything a result of mechanical processes? Is life, then, deterministic? Can we trust our sensory perceptions?

Linklater has created a suitable trajectory for these questions, which have been simmering on the backburner since he started his career in film. He doesn’t have the answers, but it’s refreshing to see someone start the conversation in such a playful way.  In one of Wiggins’s last conversations with a dream character (Richard Linklater), Linklater notes that “There’s only one instant, and it’s right now. And it’s eternity.”

One of the pillars of most philosophical systems is to see things from the perspective of eternity. As Wiggins envisions his position in the madness that is eternity, he floats away into the sky until the credits roll. Linklater just might be a modern day philosopher. Gauging his body of work so far, it’s reasonable to assert that he’s identifying with much more than the normal experiences of existence.

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  1. Great article, Courtney. I thoroughly enjoy Linklater's entire catalogue of films. He is definitely one of my favorite directors.

  2. I'm glad you liked my article, and his movies too! Waking Life comes close to my all time favorite.

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